The Book Vendor Who Ate Publishing

The days of antitrust legislation appear to be over in favor of further deregulation. The 1990s saw the dissolution of “Ma Bell” in favor of fragmented, competing communication companies. The results were not always favorable for customers. The first manifestation of freedom from corporate monopoly was the dinnertime phone solicitation to change long distance providers. On the upside, competing Sprint laid optical cable which became the backbone of modern data networks.

Publishing is a slightly different commodity. It’s a product AND a service. With proper care, a book will last a lifetime and be passed on to a new generation as a valuable heirloom. With careful attention to sorting recyclables, one newspaper will live to be a newspaper many times over. BookSurge is Amazon’s ugly clone of deformed Lulu, cousin of thinly-veneered Blurb.

There are other vanity presses. The business model reminds me of the neat democratization of media promised by CDBaby, a distribution channel for self-produced recordings. It grew from a library of obscure artist’s albums outside the catalog of Universal, Sony BMG and other vendors carrying major-label releases. Today, it is a full-service business which can accept uncompressed digital audio files, master them, press them to thousands of copies in jewel cases with custom artwork and barcode, or sell mp3s through iTunes, Amazon and Napster.

I don’t think CDBaby is “too big for their britches.” They will doubtless be consumed whole by a distributor owned by a major label, since founder Derek Sivers sold the company last year. Do I think they’re a little bit like pay-to-play venues, where a band must sell a requisite number of tickets to friends to name their place in an evening bill’s line-up? Yeah. A little.

Money and elbow grease will always give a new commodity an alley-oop, whether manifest as a guerilla marketing street team, a print campaign or a great web site. In the end, the product has to be great in order to generate a movement. Greatness is relative. Amazon has great a reputation, and rightly so (I was a mail carrier delivering those boxes with smiles printed on them during the Christmas season of 2001), for moving merchandise. Is it great merchandise? Rhetorical question. They’re a great conduit. Their promise to print a book for a customer, and that they’re a very visible, viable conduit for distributing that book will not generate “inevitable” sales. The product-to-customer ratio is simply too skewed. The new titles will be print-on-demand and there will simply be no need to print the new books, because the demand just won’t be there. There will be many terabytes of potential books waiting to be born, but no sudden glut clogging the works, with tomes by unknown but promising authors being accidentally-discovered to be great, becoming viral sensations among readers (just as unknown recording artists waiting to be discovered through “inevitable” clicks from a plethora of distribution conduits’ virtual showrooms have not become the new sensation). Reading’s harder than watching YouTube, and the product’s not free.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Book Vendor Who Ate Publishing

  1. Putting your book on Amazon or your album on CDBaby is just the first step. You still have to sell the thing. Build it and they will come? Only in the movies.

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